Raul Castro tightens grip on Cuban government

May 1st, 2008 - 11:53 am ICT by admin  

By Silvia Ayuso
Havana, May 1 (DPA) New Cuban President Raul Castro has publicly proclaimed the end of the 21-month “temporary” phase opened by the illness of his brother, long-time Cuban leader Fidel Castro. At the same time, he announced a series of measures - including the first Cuban Communist Party (PCC) congress in more than a decade - that could consolidate his power over the Caribbean island while he prepares generational change to grant “continuity” to the revolution, he said.

Fidel Castro issued an order July 31, 2006, that temporarily ceded the reins of government, after he underwent emergency surgery to treat intestinal bleeding. He finally made the handover of power to Raul permanent in February.

Raul Castro’s comments at the end of a Politburo meeting were reported Monday night on Cuban television.

The announcement “closes the temporary circle at the institutional level”, dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe told DPA Tuesday.

It ends a phase “not just from the government’s point of view”, but also from the political side. “Now it is clear that Raul is going to be in power, and Fidel is only a soldier of ideas,” Espinosa Chepe said.

Raul will have until late 2009, when the sixth party congress is planned, to strengthen his grip on power.

A party congress was traditionally held every five years, but the last was in 1997, with no official explanation for the delay.

The “necessary” congress ” will constitute a great opportunity to reflect collectively on these years of revolution in power” and “to establish the party’s policy with a view to the future”, Raul Castro said.

Analysts in and outside Cuba think that the congress of the PCC - the top organ in the country, enshrined as the “leading force in society and the state” according to the Cuban constitution - is the step forward that Raul Castro had yet to take to complete his concentration of power over the communist island.

Since stepping down as Cuban president Feb 19, Fidel Castro’ only remaining official post is as first secretary of the PCC, a position he has held since since 1965.

There has so far been no talk of possible changes at the helm of the single party, but many observers think they have seen a signal: the creation of a special commission inside the powerful PCC Politburo, the first such powerful body in which Fidel is not a member.

The commission - intended to make the decision-making process “more operational and functional” for questions that require swift action and collective evaluation - will include Raul Castro and some of his closest confidants, including First Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura and vice presidents Juan Almeida Bosque, Abelardo Colome Ibarra and Carlos Lage.

“They are people very close to Raul. It seems to indicate that things are going to move forward much more quickly,” Espinosa Chepe said.

In just more than two months as the island’s formal president, Raul Castro has gradually lifted what he saw as an “excess in prohibitions and regulations”. He has liberalised the sale of cellphones and computers, allowed Cubans to stay at luxury hotels and increased pensions and salaries in some sectors.

Under the premise that food production is a “matter of utmost importance for national security”, Raul Castro has also promoted a series of reforms to liberalise and decentralise agricultural production.

Although critics including the US government have derided these changes as purely cosmetic, the measures have been well-received by Cubans, despite the fact that average monthly salaries of some $20 leaves most of them without access to the new products.

When he was sworn in as president in February, Raul said he would “consult” Fidel on major issues. And last week the former Cuban leader even claimed part of the responsibility for the exit of education minister Luis Ignacio Gomez Gutierrez.

However, Fidel’s articles and letters, published in the Cuban press, have already shown a certain disagreement with some of the changes introduced by his brother.

The party congress, for which PCC officials will have more than 18 months to prepare, could finally consolidate Raul’s power and definitively leave his ailing brother - who would by then be 83 years old - as “just a soldier of ideas” on an island moving in a new direction.

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